Holistic Health

Is Synthetic Fragrance Toxic?

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I'm a environmental toxins lawyer turned clean living coach who is obsessed with morning sunshine, Ningxia Red and all things holistic living (but for real life).  Catch me over on Insta and come say hi.


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Yes.. most of the time (there are some exceptions). How could smelling good effect your health AND the health of those around you? You’d be surprised, but in order to really understand how bad it really is, we need to start from the beginning. Fragrance has been used for thousands of years and what started as purely distilled plants and flowers has turned in to a toxic soup of chemicals. Let’s take a 10 second walk through the history of fragrance and you’ll see how the sneakiest, most toxic chemicals are hiding in that scented lotion you love so much. Don’t worry, I won’t leave you hanging. I’ll wrap up this post by telling you how to smell amazing without all those toxins.


The use of fragrance has a long history. In pre-biblical times, in what is now the Middle East, fragrant resins were burned as incense for rituals to bring Mesopotamians closer to their gods and even Jesus was given Frankincense and Myrrh oils as gifts. You can follow the timeline of the history of fragrance through India, Japan, the Roman Empire and eventually to Italy where the first liquid perfumes were created.

Fast forward to the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s , where the first lab-created fragrance ingredients were introduced. The development of synthetic ingredients boosted growth of the fragranced body soap and washing soap industry, which today is still one of the leading users of fragrances. By the second half of the 20th century, perfumes started to become much more widespread as they could be manufactured faster and in greater quantities. Up until this time in history, fragrances were either distilled plants or resins or lab created synthetics that with some exception, posed little health risk. In fact, distilled plants hold potent healing properties… I mean, it was good enough for baby, right?!


Phthalates were first introduced in the 1920s and are more widely known as a a class of chemicals that are plasticizers and were used to create polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Phthalates are added to plastics to increase their flexibility and durability. They are also added to synthetic fragrances to make the scent long lasting. A century later, you’ll find them in everything and everywhere, which is why they have been dubbed “the everywhere chemical”.

You will find them in adhesives and glues, building materials, personal care products, medical devices, detergents and surfactants, packaging, children’s toys, modeling clay, receipts, pharmaceuticals, food products, textiles, shower curtains, vinyl upholstery, adhesives, floor tiles, food wrapping, cleaning materials, perfumes, eye shadow, moisturizer, nail polish, liquid soap, and hair spray. Yikes! Right?! Humans are regularly exposed to multiple phthalates daily.


After roughly 80 years of use in nearly everything we buy, the CDC studied the amount of phthalates found in our blood and in 2004, CDC researchers found that phthalate exposure was widespread in the U.S. population. Adult women have higher levels than men do, likely due to the phthalates that are used in soaps, body washes, shampoos, cosmetics, and similar personal care products.

In 2005, groundbreaking research linking phthalate levels with altered development in infant males was published (Dr. Swan 2005). Dr. Swan’s research showed that the levels of phthalates in the mother during pregnancy were directly related to the developmental abnormalities in their male children. In the last decade, more and more studies have shown that these chemicals disrupt hormone activity, reduce sperm counts, cause reproductive malformation and have been linked to liver and breast cancer, diabetes, and obesity. Additionally, studies by Dr. Philip J. Landrigan of the Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center, link fetal exposure with autism, ADHD, and neurological disorders.

Since phthalates and other endocrine disrupting chemicals have become a part of of our modern life, miscarriage rates have increased by about 1 percent per year in the U.S. Meanwhile, the total fertility rate worldwide has also dropped by nearly 1 percent per year from 1960 to 2018.⁣⁣ Reproductive problems in males is also on the rise. This includes rates of declining sperm counts, decreasing testosterone levels and increasing rates of testicular cancer, as well as a rise in erectile dysfunction. ⁣⁣

1% per year may seem small and insignificant, but it is a huge number.⁣⁣ It equates to more than 50 percent over 50 years (Shanna, 2017). Then think about the data showing a 1.1 percent per year increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder between 2000 and 2016 (CDC), mostly in males. Autoimmune and thyroid disorders, PCOS as well as behavioral disorders are climbing at similar rates.


The law in the US allows manufacturers to vouch for themselves on whether a chemical they produce and sell is safe. Of the more than 40,000 chemicals on the market in the US, the EPA has only banned nine, lead and mercury being examples. By contrast, Europe has banned thousands. Large companies like Proctor & Gamble and SC Johnson make safer versions of their products in Europe and sell the toxic versions in the US because they can. These chemicals are cheap and can sit on shelves a lot longer than cleaner versions. The law doesn’t regulate what chemicals are used in personal care products and leaves all safety determinations up to the companies using them to sell their products. Bottom line: there is nothing stopping them.


The FFDCA was passed in 1938 and created a self regulating industry. It does not require that cosmetic companies disclose their ingredients to the FDA, or any governmental entity, before they hit the shelves. Any disclosure of information is completely voluntary on the part of the corporation and they are allowed to vouch for the safety of their own product. No safety testing is required — until there is a problem that can be proven with a very high burden of proof. And the real issue is this…. a lot of these health impacts are long-term and are difficult to trace back to a specific product. The average woman puts 515 synthetic chemicals on her body every single day without even knowing and 60 % of what we put onto our skin is absorbed into our bodies.


You can’t avoid phthalates completely because they are everywhere, but you can reduce your exposure significantly by doing the following:

(1) eliminate canned or packaged food in order to limit ingestion of phthalates leached from plastics,

(2) avoid receipts and fast food wrappers where possible, they are coated with these toxins,

(3) never store or microwave food in plastic containers, swap to glass or stainless steel

(4) eliminate the use of any fragrance plug ins, air fresheners, or personal products that contain undisclosed fragrance.

Eliminating personal products containing phthalates can be particularly difficult or impossible due to companies not being required to disclose them in their list of ingredients. When reading labels, avoid any product that says “parfum” or “fragrance” if the source of that fragrance is not specified to be phthalate free or a known pure essential oil or botanical/fruit. That single word can be deceiving, as a single listing of “fragrance” can be made up of hundreds of chemical ingredients. The actual ingredients are protected as trade secrets and do not have to be divulged. It’s not just phthalates you need to be concerned about. More than 95 % of the chemicals in synthetic fragrances are now derived from petrochemicals. These chemicals include: benzene derivatives, aldehydes, parabens and a slew of other known toxins that are capable of causing cancer, birth defects, nervous-system disorders and allergies.


All is not lost. In recent years and in reaction to a more health conscious and educated population… clean, ethical companies have started creating personal scents that are safe and free of toxic chemicals. Companies like Skylar (Capri Summer is my fave!) and Heretic (try their Dirty Lemon) are making safe perfumes that smell ridiculously amazing. In a throw back to ancient times, companies like Young Living are cultivating beyond organic, biodynamic farming and distilling pure essential oils that are more similar to those found in King Tut’s era. Grab a diffuser or a few (I have one in every room) and enjoy all the scents and aromas in your home with zero toxins and total peace of mind. But buyer beware. Just like the chemical industry, essential oils are also not regulated, have no labeling requirements and 95% of oils on the market, on Amazon or in grocery stores are full of those toxic ingredients you are attempting to avoid.


Now that you know the history of phthalates, why you should avoid them and how to avoid them, what is the first thing you will be tossing out of your home? I challenge you to swap out one product per week until you’ve replaced all your toxic products with clean versions. Even if it takes you years to fully clean up your products, your health will thank you.

If you want to hear more, you can check out the Detox Dilemma Podcast Episode: The Fragrance Dilemma: How an Entire Industry Hijacked Your Hormones


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